Today we are pleased to present two perspectives on the recent arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams from noted commentators on contemporary Irish politics. At Pluto we aim to provide free, high-quality content whenever we can, and so we are posting both of these articles exclusively here on our blog.
The first comes from Tommy McKearney, himself a former member of the Irish republican movement and the author of The Provisional IRA (Pluto, 2011). McKearney was a senior member of the Provisional IRA from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1977. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he served 16 years during which time he participated in the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze. He is now a freelance journalist and an organiser with the Independent Workers Union.
Here’s what he had to say:
The arrest and release without charge of Gerry Adams may at first glance appear to be in accord with Friedrich Nietzsche’s line that; ‘whatever does not kill me makes me stronger’. The Sinn Fein president has been taken into custody and survived apparently unscathed, yet his recent detention may have other less helpful implications for him and his party. The above line appeared, ominously perhaps, in a work entitled ‘Twilight of the idols’ and that may prove a more appropriate interpretation in the long run.
A difficulty for Gerry Adams and his party is that they have asserted there is a structural malfunction in a political system they are pledged to maintain and uphold. Sinn Fein has staked much prestige, not to mention building its forward strategic planning, on an assessment that Northern Ireland is not just amenable to reform by normal democratic means but that this process is well under way. Now the party has been forced to question its own fundamental analysis.
Shortly after Mr Adam’s arrest his colleague, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, insisted that ‘dark forces’ within the PSNI were behind the timing of the affair. Speaking to reporters at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Sinn Féin MLA also said that he viewed the arrest as a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of elections due to take place all across Ireland in three weeks time.’
These were serious allegations and in spite of strident denials from a wide spectrum of the political establishment including Prime Minister Cameron, the accusations were not without substance. Prior to Mr Adam’s visit to Antrim police station, opinion polls were showing Sinn Fein in a strong position to make major gains in European and local government elections on 22 May on both sides of the Irish border. Only the utterly naive or wilfully malicious could suggest that to arrest the leader of a major political party in connection with a murder investigation (and a particularly nasty one at that) would not impact detrimentally on the party’s prospects.
No police officer in Northern Ireland could possibly be unaware of the sensitivities and implications relating to such a high profile arrest. Why, therefore, did the PSNI not wait until after the May elections, particularly as we now can see that the police had no evidence with which to charge him? It had to be obvious that Gerry Adams posed no serious threat of flight – where could he hide if he did? There was no question of hot pursuit while dealing with a 42-year old case in relation to which Adams had volunteered to visit the police station and made good on his offer. Nor could anyone have suggested that the 65 year-old republican posed a threat to society (in the normal policing meaning of the phrase at any rate). Being an elected representative does not make one immune to normal legal process but possession of a police warrant card does not grant its holders licence to distort the political process either.
Yet in spite of this gratuitous meddling, Sinn Fein’s reaction (as distinct from its words) has been noticeably restrained. Apart from commissioning a wall mural in the republican heartland of the Falls Road and convening a modest protest meeting to unveil the artwork, there was no evidence of the type of street protest that would certainly have been a feature of the party in the past. So restrained, indeed, was the Sinn Fein response that in spite of cross words about political interference, Martin McGuiness and a senior party colleague joined DUP leader Peter Robinson two days later after the arrest in the executive box at a Belfast rugby ground to watch Ulster play Leinster. By Day 4, Mr McGuinness had changed his position significantly and was reassuring the political establishment that his party would not withdraw support from policing in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s reaction is informative. No matter how peeved the party is about the treatment of Gerry Adams, it has been forced to accept the logic of its own position and the realpolitik of the current situation in which it finds itself. It may huff and puff about the arrest of its president but pragmatism dictates that it will not undermine the political platform it has created for itself.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has staked much on developing the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement, including inevitably policing and the judiciary. If the party were to abruptly abandon this position, it would not only have no alternative strategy but would, by default, be endorsing the ‘we told you so’ critique of its dissenting republican critics and competitors.
South of the Irish border, Sinn Fein has progressed rapidly, building on its newly acquired status as a respectable peacemaker in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless it still needs to win substantial support from the South’s bourgeoisie. To do so the party has raised the profile of its very middle class vice president Mary Lou McDonald on every possible occasion while coupling the Dublin woman’s promotion with a mellowing of its economic policies. The question Sinn Fein must now ask itself is whether it can hope to win the vital endorsement of the polite suburbs’ electorate while retaining a leader under such unpleasant scrutiny, as Gerry Adams will continue to experience.
Every opinion poll since the last general election in the Republic has indicated that Sinn Fein’s electoral strategy is working. The party is poised to win seats in the European Parliament this month while also gathering a fine haul of local government councillors on the same day. Based on such results, Sinn Fein would be in a strong position to participate in a coalition government arrangement after the Republic’s next general election, due no later than Spring 2016. Sinn Fein is inextricably embedded in the conventional political process and must therefore abide by its practices and norms. The dilemma now faced by the party is how long can it hope to operate within these parameters while led by a man associated – no matter how unfairly or unjustly – with the abduction and execution of a widowed mother of ten children.
Set against this backdrop, political pragmatism surely indicates that we may well be entering the twilight of a Sinn Fein Idol.